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Parashat Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)

“You shall do according to what is announced to you from that place the
Lord shall choose, observing scrupulously all they will instruct you.” (Deuteronomy 17:10)

Parashat Shoftim opens by describing the ethical standards required of judges in an ideal justice system. Embedded within that framework is the secret to Jewish survival: the Jewish interpretive tradition.

Shoftim acknowledges some disputes are more difficult than others to adjudicate. Those cases are referred to, “…the judge who shall be in those days.” (Deut. 17:9). Rashi (acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the pre-eminent 11th century Jewish commentator) explains those days means accepting the authority of the current judge, even if the judge is not equal to judges of the past. This echoes the rabbinic sentiment prohibiting nostalgia for the rulings of a bygone era (Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashana 25b). Shoftim emphasizes the judge’s authority by commanding, “You shall act in accordance with the instructions given you and the ruling handed down to you…” (Deut. 17:11)

The doctrine of Originalism finds no purchase in the Jewish interpretive tradition; the Torah is a living document. A text can have multiple meanings and the meaning of a text can and will change over time. This is what allows the rabbis to reinvent Judaism after the destruction of the Temple by mandating ritual behavior not specifically commanded in the Torah (e.g. prayer instead of sacrifice, or lighting Shabbat or Chanukah candles) yet still reciting a bracha, or blessing, identifying it as God’s commandment.

Jewish survival has always required navigating the tension between tradition and change. The Jewish approach to textual interpretation, which offers a process but not a product, is an essential element. “Adapt or die” may be a contemporary hi-tech entrepreneurial mantra, but Shoftim anticipates that reality by thousands of years.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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